Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love is probably one of those books that’s easier to dislike in theory than in fact. So many things about Gilbert’s journey – the idea of travel as a means to finding oneself rather than experiencing a different culture, “cherry picking” bits and pieces of different religions, embarking on a journey of self-discovery financed by a publishing house – offend me, but she has a likable enough voice that most of these offenses became less grating to me as I read her memoir.

Her writing is funny enough, at times, but she swerves between treating subjects with a pleasant and light humor to going all purple-y about God and the universe and the way she experiences the world around her. The relative percentage of say, funny vs. over-the-top prose, changes drastically from section to section, so that in some ways this felt like three books to me, or at least three “novella-ish” memoirs linked because they happened to occur within the span of one year.

The first section of Gilbert’s memoir, about her travels in Italy, was by far my favorite. As a person who for a year and a half has not eaten real Italian food (I make a mean tomato sauce out of the tomatoes which are fifty cents a kilo in summer, but that is one tomato sauce out of a year and a half of being offered spaghetti with mayonnaise), I wanted Gilbert to spend another two hundred pages telling me about all the pizza she ate and wine she drank.

Second we’ve got four months at an ashram. As an atheist with not even the slightest inclination towards “spirituality,” I found Gilbert’s prose here to be too much – I am pretty sure my mouth was hanging open all through the second part of the book, me whispering, “No! People really write things like this?”

And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon in India was indescribable, even though it was. I’ll try to explain anyway. Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (199)

Gilbert is still meditating and thinking on God when she hits Bali in the third and final section of the book, but here it’s not so much and it’s coupled with her meeting and falling in love with a Brazilian, Felipe. (My googling revealed, unfortunately, that he does not look like Javier Bardem.)

That I’m in the Peace Corps influences my reading of this book. Whatever you claim when you’re applying, most people try to join Peace Corps as much to “discover themselves” as to “help people,” so I can’t be too critical of Gilbert’s decision to travel solely as a means of self-discovery. There is something about travel or life abroad that we seem to universally agree acts as a positive agent of change, and while you can’t leave your problems behind you in the states you can at least hope that at the end of ….. (whatever, a year traveling the world, two years in the Peace Corps) you’ll return home a better person.

This is a cheap way of summarizing my reading of the book, though, so today we’ll be getting some outsider opinions. Right now (well, I wrote this on Sunday – so “right now” on Sunday) I am in my friend Joany’s apartment sitting next to my friend Jackie, a former Peace Corps volunteer who moved to Greece to, as Gilbert puts it, “idle at the traffic light” with her Greek boyfriend (who from the back looks suspiciously like her Macedonian language instructor from Peace Corps training). Jackie is, I think, uniquely qualified to comment on Gilbert’s book because, you know, she lives in Greece with a Greek boyfriend.

Me: Jackie, what are your thoughts on this book?

Jackie: (makes thoughtful noises) Elizabeth Gilbert is a narcissist. But I kind of like it, because I’m one too. Maybe anyone who’s on a journey of self-discovery is slightly narcissistic.

Joany: No…. (lays down)

Jackie: (laughs, picks at beaded cord on sweatpants) I have mixed feelings about the message it sends to women, because it says if I just indulge myself and find my spiritual center, I’ll be rewarded with a man at the end.

Joany: You guys are making me not want to read this book.

Jackie: Joany, who recently embarked on page one.

(long pause)

Jackie: But then I also find myself, at times, really relating.

And that’s about it, I guess. Countless aspects of the book are offensive, but enough of me relates to Gilbert and wonders if whether, by “finding myself,” I’ll be able to meet the man of dreams (Javier Bardem, apparently) that I can’t bash the book as much as I did before reading it. Living abroad, though, isn’t always as simple as Gilbert makes it appear, and I worry that readers will think, for one, the being rewarded with a man bit, and for two, that life abroad is a cure-all for all your problems. It’s not. Elizabeth Gilbert may have finished her year of travel a changed woman, but for most of us… we will be exactly the same person at the end of our travels as we were at the beginning, albeit with a few more stamps in our passports.

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Story Sundays: Julie Orringer’s “Care”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

When I started thinking about writing more on short stories, and then started thinking about writing more on short stories by Writers Who Aren’t Dead, Julie Orringer was one of the first I thought of looking up. This struck me as weird, because although I read her collection, How to Breathe Underwater, years ago, I don’t remember thinking much of her at the time or in ensuing years. This may be in part due to my suspicion of Writers with MFAs (Orringer has one from Iowa), but her name and her collection have stuck in my head long enough that it seemed time to revisit her.

And man, am I glad I did. You can find a decent number of Orringer’s stories online for free, and if you have the time and inclination it’s worth seeking them out. (Word to the wise, though: make sure to check they’re complete, because I’ve stumbled over some that are excerpts. Lengthy excerpts, but excerpts nonetheless.)

My favorite reread story by Orringer is “Care”, which appeared in her collection. It’s about a girl, Tessa, who is babysitting her sister’s daughter, Olivia, for the day, but also about the misdirections of life. Orringer hints at how Tessa’s life has veered off course and how she is trying to find her way back, but without belaboring the point, and the narrative tone is perfectly matched to Tessa’s mental state.

She feels something going wide and empty in her chest, the Devvie slipping out from beneath the Sallie, the cartoon moment just before you fall, when the cliff’s already gone but gravity has not yet got you.

There are also some fantastic descriptions of characters. On Tessa’s brother-in-law: “he is devoted to the study of imaginary numbers and to the building of handy gadgets.” On Tessa’s niece, Olivia: “She is a child cared for in great detail.” And some lines that are, more generally, just pitch-perfect, like when Tessa tells Olivia: “I’m your adult today.[…] I make the rules.”

Orringer may be a graduate of a creative writing program, but rereading her stories makes me want to take back all the bad things (well, some of the bad things) I’ve said or thought about these programs and the writers who attend them. Anything that can produce this sort of story, this sort of writer, is worth it.

What have you read by Orringer? Do you have a favorite story by her?

Read “Care.”

The Condition, and What Creative Writing Programs are Doing to American Fiction

It is perhaps unfair that I don’t devote an entire entry to reviewing Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, but this book plays well into something I spend a little too much time worrying about: namely, what MFA programs are doing to American literature.

On the list of things it has going for it, The Condition is a skillfully written novel with well-drawn characters. Their actions are maybe 95% of the time believable and understandable.

On the list of things against it, the plot of The Condition can be summed up in a sentence, because it’s only a plot in the loosest definition of the thing: the novel is about the McKotch family and how the genetic condition of one family member, Gwen (a condition that leaves her in the body of a child for her entire life) impacts the course of their lives.

Things do happen in this novel. People break up and come back together. People are married. Gwen’s father, Frank, has a drama at work. But at end, the novel lacks a center. Haigh splits her time evenly between the major family members (the parents, Frank and Paulette, and their children, Billy, Gwen and Scott) and the result is a certain lack of focus. Maybe their lives were impacted by Gwen’s medical condition, but to base an entire novel on this is a shaky proposition; and moreover, Gwen’s condition doesn’t seem to have had all that much impact on their lives. One widely held assumption throughout the novel is that Frank and Paulette divorced because of the stresses resulting from Gwen’s condition, but near novel’s end we find that those fractures in their marriage were present long before they split up. It may be more accurate to say that the novel is about how characters believe their lives have been impacted by Gwen’s life.

Haigh’s novel is undeniably a well-written one, albeit not one with reams, or even a few, sentences that leap out and grab hold of you. Having read The Condition after Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, a novel that is both well-written and well-plotted, the faults of a character-based, plot-free novel, written in the style of (hey!) a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, stood out all the more sharply to me.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Haigh is arguably better than the authors of some of the classics I’ve been reading lately – Kate Chopin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even Fitzgerald in The Beautiful & Damned. They all fail sometimes to craft the universally pleasing sentences of her novel. But there is no question that all three of them are better writers than Haigh. Reading their books, I feel that there’s something real in them, that characters are being caught up in history, in life, unlike Haigh’s characters, who stew in their self-created miseries for nearly 400 pages. Their novels are not based around a template, a sort of product of the writing programs that are so popular now. How many novels have there been in the last five or ten years with a “plot” centering on how one event impacts the life of a family? How do you even begin to count such novels?

In her review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing at the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman writes:

…McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

On the whole, I agree with Batuman’s view of writing programs, and her article is a much more lucid consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of writing programs than anything I write can be. In that quote, she makes the point that I’ve been reaching towards, if not voicing, for years now: that there a lot of writers producing commendable work that I’ll forget about a week after I’ve read it. My abandonment of short story collections isn’t the result of a decreasing love for the story, but for having, a few too many times, gotten halfway through a collection before realizing, Hey! I’ve read this before!…but still being unable to remember any clear details of the stories. Does it matter how “well written” a work is, by the most objective measures we can imagine, if there’s nothing about the story that we will remember a year, a month, a week after reading it?

In her conclusion Batuman writes, “As for literature, it will be neither made nor broken by the programme, which is doubtless as incapable of ruining a good writer as of transforming a bad one.” And as Bill Morris concludes in his essay “Does School Kill Writing?”, “School can’t kill writing.” With Batuman and Morris, though, I don’t think this is a reason for celebration. Although McGurl may argue that we see fiction as increasingly mediocre only because it is, as a whole, so much better than it used to be, I think the mediocrity is more a result of the sameness of literature coming out of creative writing programs. It may be technically good, but I can’t care enough to read it anymore. The Condition, with its forgettable characters, forgettable sentences, forgettable plot, reminded me of why my shift to the classics, to young adult, to genre fiction, to histories, to anything that didn’t emerge from a writing program, has been such a pleasurable one.

Further reading: